On my first day of class this past semester, like my previous three semesters at the University of Delaware (UD), I expected to attend my classes and be given syllabi with course expectations. I did not expect to have references to Title IX on my course syllabi, warning students that any reference to sexual misconduct disclosed in class would be reported by my professors. Here is an excerpt from one course syllabus:
Please note: as a responsible employee at the University of Delaware I have reporting responsibilities under Title IX and I am required to file a report regarding any sexual misconduct that is reported to me or that is described in the classroom.
I hardly knew what Title IX was, and yet, it was dictating what I could and could not feel comfortable saying in a classroom. This prompted me to do some research.
Just over a year ago, UD—as well as over 50 other colleges and universities—were put under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The number of schools being investigated has since doubled, and over 100 institutions are currently under investigation for their handling of sexual assault cases. Publicly announcing the universities that are under investigation puts an immense amount of pressure on school administrations, which has led to universities taking excessive measures in an effort to comply with Title IX’s requirements. The warnings placed on my syllabi are a direct result of the UD administration responding to the pressures of Title IX compliance.
While the foundation of Title IX and its goal of eliminating sex-based discrimination in education is desirable, I have seen the negative effects of the pressures to keep up with Title IX’s standards firsthand in the classroom setting. In a course I took this semester, our class discussed a variety of subjects including abortion, sex-based discrimination, rape, and sexual assault on college campuses. Our professor confided that in the past many students felt comfortable discussing their sexual assault experiences with her and the class, as these topics were commonly examined in class. Victims of sexual assault were able to confide in my professor about extremely delicate and emotional information—at least they were able to before UD found itself under investigation by OCR. Since OCR’s enforcement and the references placed on my syllabus, my professor reports that not one student has come to her to discuss past experiences of sexual assault.
Could it be that there were no cases of sexual assault this past semester? Is the Department of Education’s investigation truly making a difference? No, I don’t believe this is the case. The only effect I have seen from Title IX’s enforcement at UD is the silencing of victims and the loss of potential speakers.
Title IX has created a chilling effect at UD as students no longer feel that they can be open in discussions with their class and their professors. Every student has different experiences that allow them to add to class discussions in constructive ways. These candid discussions about sexual assault on campus can create an open, supportive environment where victims can speak about their experiences. However, by forcing professors to report sexual misconduct, Title IX is interfering with the choice a victim has as to whether he or she wants to report the incident or not.
Forcing an unwanted investigation on students that do speak out will cause many students to feel uncomfortable discussing their experiences, which will end the conversation. If a victim does not want to report an incident, but finds comfort in discussing the misconduct with a professor who is empathetic and experienced with issues of sexual assault, why should the university demand an investigation? Universities should be encouraging victims to discuss their trauma in a healthy and progressive manner, but instead they are teaching students how to be afraid and silent.
The vagueness and overbreadth of the Title IX language on my syllabus is also extremely worrisome for the expression of students. Again, this course involves discussion of various sensitive and provocative topics. The excerpt on my syllabus claims that any sexual misconduct described in the classroom must be reported—not merely on-campus or recent sexual misconduct, but any sexual misconduct. Even if a student experienced sexual assault as a child and feels comfortable discussing this with her class or professor, the syllabus suggests that the professor is required by law to report it. This creates a barrier for speech, where students will no longer bring their past experiences to the discussion, in this course or any other course at UD, because of the chilling effect of this overly broad interpretation of Title IX.
As I start my junior year at UD, I hope that I am not presented again with syllabi warnings that create apprehension for students to describe their experiences in course discussions. I strongly believe that until the responsibility of a professor to report sexual misconduct is removed, many victims will continue to be silent and feel their speech is being suppressed while universities claim to be in accordance with Title IX standards.
Rachael Russell is a FIRE summer intern.